Daniel Rigney: The Matthew Effect as Social Spiral

Daniel Rigney, The Matthew EffectThe following is a post by Daniel Rigney, author of The Matthew Effect: How Advantage Begets Further Advantage.

The “Matthew effect” is a term coined by the Columbia University sociologist Robert Merton in 1968 to describe a common pattern in social systems: advantage tends to beget further advantage. The phrase derives from a scripture in the biblical book of Matthew (with corresponding passages in Mark and Luke) proclaiming that to those who have, more will be given, while for those who have not, even that will be taken away.

In its context, the passage refers to the growth of spiritual understanding and the development of talents, but in our own more materialist context it is often loosely paraphrased to mean “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” As Merton uses the term, however, the “riches” in question may be either material or nonmaterial, denoting the growth of inequalities not just in economic wealth but also in political power, prestige, knowledge, or any other scarce and valued resource.

Merton’s own research in this instance pertains to the distribution of prestige in scientific communities. He found that scientists who studied in more prestigious graduate programs tended to accumulate more advantages—prestigious appointments, research grants, awards, and the like—than did equally productive scientists from less prestigious programs. Their initial advantages in turn attracted still further advantages. This self-perpetuating accumulation of advantage serves as an example of what I shall call a social spiral. Matthew effects thus tend to create upward spirals of cumulative advantage as success breeds further success.

The corollary, however, is that initial disadvantage in turn often leads to further disadvantage. Being born into poverty, for example, greatly increases the probability of remaining poor, and each further disadvantage makes it increasingly difficult to escape the economic undertow. Those who are economically vulnerable, such as middle- or working-class people who suddenly become unemployed in a recession or lose a source of income through death or illness, may find themselves trapped in a downward spiral of disadvantage.

We are speaking here of probabilities and not absolutes. No one denies that there are “rags to riches” stories, but these are less typical than “rags to rags” or “riches to riches” stories. Yet rags-to-riches stories, however atypical, are often trotted out to promote the ideology that ours is indeed a land of equal opportunity. Neither Merton nor any other reasonable person would argue that Matthew effects are universal or inevitable, and in my book I consider several conditions that limit their scope. But the general pattern of self-reinforcing inequality should be familiar to anyone who pays attention to the realities of social life. As energy billionaire T. Boone Pickens writes in his autobiography, “the first billion is the hardest.”

The Matthew effect joins a number of other concepts in the social sciences that may be characterized as social spirals. Economists speak of inflationary spirals, spiraling unemployment, and spiraling debt. Demographers speak of population explosions in which birth rates so exceed death rates that (excluding migration) the total size of a population spirals out of control. These spirals resemble or exemplify what systems theorists call positive feedback loops, in which processes feed upon themselves in such a way as to cause nonlinear patterns of growth. (By contrast, negative feedback loops, exemplified by thermostats, tend to have stabilizing effects, returning a system to a state of equilibrium.) The Matthew effect is an instance of a positive feedback loop in the distribution of resources of all kinds in social systems.

I argue in my book The Matthew Effect that this concept is among the most important—and yet least known—in the social sciences. I wrote the book to bring it to wider public attention. This idea deserves not just to be understood but also to inform public policy decisions that have an impact on inequality, in such areas as taxation and civil rights. Current proposed changes in public policy threaten to drive us ever further into what economist Paul Krugman and many others have called a new Gilded Age. These are times that call for a deeper awareness of social spirals in general and Matthew effects in particular.

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